Climate Activists Sentenced to Imprisonment Over Non-Violent Protest

Information on this page was reviewed by a specialist defence lawyer before being published. Click to read more.
Climate activists prison

Extinction Rebellion activists Violet Coco, Brad Homewood and Joe Zammit drove a truck onto the West Gate Bridge in Naarm-Melbourne at 7.45 am on Tuesday and parked it in a manner that blocked three lanes of five heading in one direction, leaving two open for emergency vehicles.

The banner that adorned the top of the truck summed up the purpose of the nonviolent direct action, reading, “Business as usual equals death”. And the whole scene evoked the message that despite the hush on the climate emergency in the media at present, it’s only getting worse.

“We are engaging in civil resistance, because it really is our last best hope,” said Homewood, over a livestream from atop the truck. “We’ve tried everything else. We’ve tried writing letters. We’ve tried signing petitions…. The reality is none of it has worked.”

The 5 March peak hour blockage, which grabbed the city’s airwaves, was staged to coincide with the APPEA conference and expo, which is a fossil fuel industry event, involving about 200 local corporations that produce around 95 percent of the nation’s oil and gas.

But whilst all three climate defenders were expecting arrest, and Zammit, on accepting his bail conditions, was released, Coco and Homewood refused bail and directly entered a guilty plea to public nuisance and obstructing police, and the magistrate sent them away for three weeks.

XR climate defenders Violet Coco, Joe Zammit and Brad Homewood stop a truck blocking the West Gate Bridge
XR climate defenders Violet Coco, Joe Zammit and Brad Homewood stop a truck blocking the West Gate Bridge

Silencing the messengers

“We’re in a climate emergency. We’re seeing accelerating warming that scientists are puzzled by – they can’t explain,” said Jane Morton, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion Victoria. “This is a desperate situation, and this is our attempt to sound the alarm.”

“The sentences are harsh for peaceful climate protest,” she said referring to the imprisoned climate defending duo. “There’s a lot of talk about the bridge being blocked off, but there were two lanes left open until the police blocked off the other two.”

For Zammit, it was his first-time taking climate action. But both the detained climate defenders have dedicated their lives to the cause and have been arrested on numerous occasions.

Their pleas were entered against a backdrop of police forces being known to use extreme bail conditions to erode a protest movement, which is a technique known as strategic incapacitation, and it serves to break down communication in a group and prevent future mobilisation.

Prosecutor Geoff Adams said the trio had caused massive traffic delays, whilst Victorian Magistrate Andrew McKenna said their expression of remorse to the court didn’t ring true, and that the pair didn’t appear to really care that they’d made thousands of Melburnians late to work and school.

Morton added that renowned environmentalist Bob Brown recently remarked that in his consideration if the draconian antiprotest laws and penalties of the present had been around when he led the campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River in the early 1980s, it wouldn’t have succeeded.

Hell on Earth

“Our concern is that people have no idea how serious this is,” the XR spokesperson said, on being asked about the law’s ability to suppress the message. “And one of the things that people were saying in interviews yesterday, is that we’re sounding the alarm on behalf of scientists.”

Morton adds that scientists around the world are speaking out in a manner never seen before, yet the mainstream media is ignoring their calls about the unprecedented weather events.

Indeed, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced last month that the Earth was, on average, 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than in preindustrial times, and that breaking this critical barrier has taken humanity into higher temperatures than it has ever experienced before.

“Our honest opinion is that if people knew how serious this is,” the long-term climate defender continued, “they’d be grateful for our tactics. We know no other way of actually putting sufficient pressure on the politicians and the media to get the kind of emergency action that is now required.”

Morton recommended reading the Hot House Earth paper by esteemed Australian climate scientist the late Will Steffen, “as millions have”, as it warns that a phenomenon called runaway warming may begin after planetary temperatures rise above 1.5 °C  but prior to passing 2 °C.

“Runaway warming. Unstoppable warming,” the activist underscored. “And what we are looking at is billions of deaths, and eventually, the collapse of organised society.”

An act worthy of the crisis

The Coco-Homewood-Zammit action also served as a prelude to next week’s XR Rebel for Life demonstrations aimed at disrupting business as usual in Naarm, beginning next Tuesday morning, 12 March, with a bit of disrupting the city. And the XR Victoria events page is packed with protests.

“We had a period of disruption last year in December,” Morton recalled. “And we are going to have another period of disruption this March. Every morning, we will be disrupting peak hour. And on Saturday, there will be a slow march and mass civil disobediance, where hopefully hundreds of people will sit on the road.”

Morton considers the incarcerated pair are likely feeling the way that climate defenders generally tend to after they do find their liberty denied and that’s “a sense of relief and pride at having the courage to do something that is proportionate to the danger”.

The XR activists were also raising the three long-term demands that the movement has stuck to since it was first established back in 2018.

These are that the government tells the truth and declares a climate emergency, that this is responded to with immediate action and that people’s assemblies are formed to deliberate upon and make decisions about climate-related matters.

“We are in the climate endgame. We are at risk of runaway warming,” Morton made certain. “We have to escalate our protest, and we do recognise that this will often mean an escalation in penalties and perhaps even more draconian laws.”

“But our last and best chance is civil resistance, and we do need people to join us on the streets and show that we are not afraid, to say that we are not prepared to back down in the face of oppression,” she concluded.

“So, we do need people to come and join us on the 12th to the 16th of March.”

Receive all of our articles weekly


Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

Your Opinion Matters